In a spin about Milton

IAN COLLINS A short walk through the City of London reveals a great deal about an epic poet and Cromwellian England’s chief spin doctor. Ian Collins is amazed and appalled by John Milton.


With the City of London now seemingly recast as Europe's largest building site, I'm currently involved in a doubtless doomed campaign to save one brutalist 1960s block from being bulldozed.

Milton Court was the original administrative building for the landmark Barbican Estate, where I am lucky enough to have a flat. The fabulously gaunt structure also provided a mortuary and fire station.

Although the new plans would bring a theatre for the great Guildhall School of Music and Drama, with funding from a residential skyscaper, some of us like the concrete court exactly as it is. It was both a blueprint for the arts centre and urban village that followed and a fitting tribute to the austerity of legendary poet and local lad John Milton.

He lies buried, along with his father, in the Wren church of St Giles Cripplegate which, wrecked in the Blitz, has now been beautifully restored - to lie like a stone ship in a sea of Barbican concrete.

Those of us who still wince at the thought of Paradise Lost studied for A-level English, may also recall that such an ardent propagandist left us with a sneaking regard for Lucifer. (I used to play the Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil at full volume after drowning in that densest text.)

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Well, as with his art, so with his life. He was a forbidding figure, heroic in his support for lost causes…

If you walk along Cheapside - as you very easily can from Liverpool Street - you can count six or eight mobile phone shops, revealing the main mania of modern communications.

But if you'd strolled here in 1608, the year of Milton's birth, you could have found a spread-eagle sign over his family home in Bread Street, a lane leading off the main thoroughfare.

This was the symbol of father John Milton's studio, where he worked as a scrivener - copying documents and manuscripts and providing a valuable service in an era when most people were illiterate.

Mirroring the conflict of the age, John Milton senior had converted to Puritanism at the cost of being disinherited by his Catholic dad. Happily, he made a tidy sum by scrivening and composing music.

His two sons - our (anti-)hero John and Christopher - in turn took opposing sides in the Civil War.

The poet would flourish and fall with Cromwell, while the sibling was knighted and made a judge on the Restoration.

This one small family sums up the tragedy of a conflict which fatally spilt kith and kin and which is now believed to have caused the deaths of up to 900,000 people. Both brothers were lucky to escape with their lives.

Christened at All Hallows in Honey Lane (opposite Bow Churchyard), our John was one of the 153 boys educated for free at St Paul's School - the register reflecting the number of fish caught in the biblical miracle of the draught of fishes.

He then spent seven years at Cambridge, studying seven languages before continuing to delve into every subject under the sun as was deemed necessary preparation for a future career as an epic poet.

In 1638 he went to Italy and met Galileo, then an old man under house arrest by the Inquisition for deducing that the Earth revolved around the sun. No wonder his hatred of despotism hardened.

Back in England he lodged with a tailor in St Bride's churchyard off Fleet Street, before finding a house with a garden in Aldersgate Street. Here he opened a school, before dropping almost everything to back the Commonwealth cause in fiery prose.

His marriage to 17-year-old Mary Powell, in 1643, lasted all of a month - until the light-hearted cavalier's daughter fled the gloomy marital home. With the Royalist side then thought to be winning the Civil War, her family rudely rejected his demand for the runaway's return.

Then fortunes shifted, and the Powell family lost its estates. Mary now begged to be taken back… along with her parents and seven sisters. Milton agreed, but theirs could never be a happy household.

His mother-in-law thought him "harsh and choleric"; his wife died in childbirth in 1652, by which time the family was living in High Holborn - in a roomy house opening on to Lincoln's Inn Fields. John's star was now firmly in the ascendant, even as his dour spirit remained lowering, with a mood laid even lower by the fact that he had lately gone blind.

A fortnight after the beheading of Charles I, in 1649, the Puritan spin doctor had published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a democratic document arguing that power always resided with the people. They could delegate to a sovereign, but if he abused their trust he could be deposed or even executed as a tyrant.

Having rendered that great service to the regicides, he was then appointed secretary for foreign languages to Cromwell and his Council of State. That meant translating foreign despatches into diplomatic Latin.

Blind from the age of 43, he lost a second wife - again in childbirth - a year after their marriage.

A bleak temperament turned black with the Restoration, which brought a warrant for his arrest.

Hiding in a friend's house in Bartholomew Close, west Smithfield, he found himself excluded from an Act of Oblivion pardoning most of Cromwell's supporters.

Soon he was in custody, but his life may have been spared by the royalist playwright Sir William Davenant - for whom Milton had performed a similar favour only a few years earlier. Either that, or a blind poet was now deemed harmless.

Milton moved first to Jewin Street (now below the Barbican) then to nearby Bunhill Row. He married for a third time in 1662, and the household moved to Buckinghamshire to escape the Great Plague three years later.

It was there - in a Chalfont St Giles cottage now hosting a museum to his memory - that he completed work on Paradise Lost as dictated to his daughters.

Dictated was the word. As his first biographer, Dr Johnson, put it: "He thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion." One daughter thought news of the latest paternal wedding was of no account but if she should hear of her father's death, "that would be something!"

He earned just £10 for his family's labours by the time he died of gout, back in Bunhill Row, in November 1674. He left most of his meagre estate to his widow rather than to his "undutiful children".

Dr Johnson spoke for most of us when he wrote: "Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again.

"None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure."

But it's very pleasing to follow in the footsteps, and to visit the St Giles Cripplegate resting place, of Puritan England's answer to spin doctor Alastair Campbell.

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